Dark glass reflected a murky face as Souji Seta moved toward his window, looking out at the fog that had set in this morning. As usual, the fog was rather thick and nearly impossible to see through- Souji often felt quite downcast gazing over the dreary town under the fog, but today was different. He turned around and plopped down onto his couch, tuning in to the television as it broadcasted the morning news.
"… expelled student Mitsuo Kubo has yet to reveal any more information regarding his methods in the Inaba serial murder case. Police are continuing their investigation, but have yet to find any other incriminating evidence against him. We'll bring you more as the case develops. And now, for the weath-"
With a click, the screen went black. Souji leaned back in his seat and stretched, a content grunt escaping from his lips.
Mitsuo Kubo. The team had tracked him down in a video game-like dungeon after he had appeared on the Midnight Channel, taunting for them to find him. After a long grueling battle with Mitsuo's shadow however, rather than becoming a Persona like the rest of the team's shadows had, it simply disappeared. The team had questioned him to no avail before handing him over to police.
Souji pursed his lips as he creased his eyebrows in thought- Mitsuo had admitted to committing the murders during their questioning, but several inconsistencies in the case seemed to pop up as Souji went through the details in his mind. The first glaring oddity was Mr. Morooka's absence from the Midnight Channel. Every other victim had appeared on the Midnight Channel before they were kidnapped, yet Mr. Morooka was the only one who was apparently captured then killed without any warning. Secondly, there was Mitsuo himself. Shadows, as Souji understood it, were people's repressed feelings given form. Rather than spew out these hidden feelings to mock him, Mitsuo's shadow had simply remained quiet, gazing at the boy with an almost aloof expression. Was there simply nothing that Mitsuo had to hide? Or was it a symbol of the abyss in his heart, his reason for killing?
No matter how hard Souji tried, he couldn't quite shake the itching feeling that something wasn't right with the outcome of the case. He wished he could simply just look away and forget everything and return to a normal life, spending time with friends and family after school rather than fighting for his life in another world. He wanted to enjoy his remaining time in Inaba, hanging out with the newfound friends he had grown so close to the past few months, and of course, spend time with Yukiko.
A smile found its way onto Souji's lips as his thoughts lingered on the dark haired girl named Yukiko- the girl who had seemed so reserved and distant when he first arrived in Inaba had become so much more affable and outgoing and was now sharing an intimate relationship with him. He found himself talking with her even more than before- when they couldn't chat in person, they talked on the phone, sometimes for hours on end about all kinds of things, ranging from the everyday mundane to Yosuke and Chie's most recent argument, with Yukiko bursting into laughing fits from time to time. Yukiko seemed much happier recently- Chie had pointed out to him that lately it was rare to see her without a smile on her face.
Pi pi pi!
Souji's heart gave a slight jump as he looked down at his table, picking up his phone and glancing at the caller ID before flipping it open.
"Hey, it's Yosuke. Sorry for dropping this on you all of a sudden, but I need a big favor. Can you work at Junes from today 'til Friday?"
"Starting today!?" Souji squawked, lifting himself from the couch and striding over to his calendar pinned on the wall.
There was a short pause before Yosuke began pleading. "We're short on staff! I'll pay you more than we usually pay our workers! I'll buy you lunch everyday at work too, I promise! Please, I'm begging you!"
Souji's eyes swept over the contents of his calendar, noting the lack of events during the month. This week was no different- it was summer break after all, and earning some extra money seemed like a good idea. "Okay, sounds good," Souji said, returning to his seat.
"Oh, sweet! You're awesome buddy! A real lifesaver!" Yosuke cried enthusiastically. "I'll be waiting at Junes, so I'll see ya soon!"
After Yosuke had hung up, Souji thought that it would be a good idea to call Yukiko to let her know that he'd be at Junes today. Leaning back into his seat, he quickly dialed Yukiko's number and pressed the phone to his ear. A few rings later, he was greeted by Yukiko's voicemail- it wasn't unusual for Yukiko to miss his calls, as she was usually helping out around the inn all throughout the day. Souji left her a short message before hanging up, then glanced at the clock and decided that he'd better not keep Yosuke waiting.
Before Souji knew it, it was already noon. The Junes food court was bustling with more activity than he had expected, and he found himself struggling to keep up with the number of orders that were being placed. Just a few feet away, Yosuke was doing the same, taking and serving orders. According to Yosuke, there was some kind of hero show taking place at Junes today, accounting for the sudden influx of people.
"Here you go Sensei! Order number 91 is ready!" Teddie announced, placing a cup of shaved ice onto the counter.
"Thanks Teddie," Souji said, trying to recall which table it belonged to.
"Welcome! We've got shaved ice here, with all your favorite flavors! Cheer on the heroes while enjoying a tasty snack of frosty shaved ice!"
That was Chie of course, standing at the corner of the food court, advertising to disinterested shoppers passing by.
"Man, I'm pooped," Yosuke sighed, "Wanna go on lunch break? I think the show's gonna be starting soon, so there'll be a lot less people coming in."
"Oh! You promised me lunch Yosuke!" Chie cried, jogging toward them now from across the food court.
"How is it you always manage to hear me when I'm talking about food?" Yosuke mumbled, "…Let me guess… you want the steak."
"Yup! I've been looking forward to it all day!" Chie said excitedly.
Yosuke rolled his eyes with a small chuckle, shaking his head in disbelief at Chie's meat obsession. "You want anything to eat Teddie? It'll be my treat."
"I'll have a mouth-watering appetizer of Chie-chan, a succulent main course of Yuki-chan, and a decadent dessert of Rise-chan." Teddie said, wiggling his eyebrows and ears at a rather repulsed Chie.
"… I've gotta stop letting him watch TV," Yosuke stated blandly, shaking his head, "Chie and I will have the steak, Teddie, and Souji will have the yakiniku."
"Coming right up!" Teddie declared, laying out strips of meat on top of the griddle.
"Ugh, it's so hot today!" Chie muttered, flapping the bottom of her tank top in an attempt to cool off as she pulled out a chair and plopped herself down.
Yosuke simply nodded in agreement, wiping his forehead with his sleeve before turning to watch Teddie prepare the group's meal. "Man, Teddie is really dedicated isn't he? I'm melting in this short-sleeved shirt, and he's wearing that huge costume, and he's standing in front of the griddle. How does he do it…?"
"We don't even know if he's human," Souji guessed, "His body might be different than ours."
"Hmm… you could be right," Yosuke replied, his stomach rumbling as the delicious aroma of their lunch reached his nose.
"Oh, it's Yukiko!" Chie piped suddenly, waving to a figure behind the two boys.
Souji got up out of his seat and walked over to greet the approaching raven haired girl, the two entering a light embrace as they met.
"Sorry I missed your call this morning… I was helping Kasai-san clean the hallways," Yukiko said, nestling her head closer to Souji's chest, "I got your message though."
"It's been a pretty busy day," Souji murmured, gazing into Yukiko's dark eyes.
Yukiko then broke their embrace, pushing herself off his chest and took a step back, surveying Souji up and down. "The Junes apron looks pretty good on you," Yukiko chortled, feeling the cloth between her slender fingers.
"It'll make anyone look good," Yosuke huffed, a smile creasing his face. "We're ready for you two to join us any time," he continued, gesturing to the empty seats beside himself and Chie.
"Oh! Sorry…" Yukiko mumbled, going quite red in the face. She quickly made her way around the table to where Chie sat, getting a few nudges in the shoulder from her best friend as she sat down.
"If you had told me at the beginning of the year that a new transfer student was going to take on the Amagi challenge and win Yukiko's heart, I would've called you crazy," Yosuke said.
"Amagi challenge?" Chie echoed.
"Well, Yukiko earned quite a reputation for shutting down every guy who's ever asked her out. It eventually became something of a competition between guys to see who could successfully ask her out first… and that became the Amagi challenge."
"Is it really that big of a deal? I don't see why guys would make such a fuss over it…"
"It's about a man's pride!" Yosuke said loudly, "I mean, I was totally crushed when Yukiko rejected me a few months back…"
Yukiko cocked an eyebrow at Yosuke, puzzled. "You asked me out before?"
"There you go again," Yosuke moaned, slapping a hand to his forehead, drawing chuckles from the other two members of the group.
"Well, the boys have Rise-chan to chase after now," Chie added.
"So… I guess it'll be the Kujikawa challenge now?" Yosuke asked weakly, "What kind of guy do you think she likes?"
"Food's ready!" Teddie shouted, "Oh! Yuki-chan's here!"
"Teddie! You're cooking?" Yukiko choked, surprised.
"He's actually pretty good at it," Yosuke said, rising out of his seat to pick up the group's meal as Teddie beamed at Yukiko from behind the griddle. Yukiko cast her eyes to the ground and mumbled something incomprehensible, though Souji thought he heard something about cooking and disappearing bears.
"…The Summer Festival's this Saturday isn't it?" Chie brought up thoughtfully. "We're all going right?"
"That's right!" Yukiko exclaimed, eyes lit with excitement, "I can't wait! This year's going to be so much fun! Hey, why don't you see if Nanako-chan wants to come with us, Souji?"
"That's a good idea," Souji said, nodding in agreement. He wondered if his uncle had ever taken Nanako to the Summer Festival before, and if she had ever worn a yukata. Nonetheless, he was sure that it would be a fun experience for her.
As Chie and Yukiko began discussing what color clothing they should wear to the festival, Yosuke returned with the group's meal. "Steak for me and Chie… and yakiniku for Souji," he stated, handing each dish to its appropriate owner.
"Let's eat!" Chie exclaimed, her conversation with Yukiko seemingly forgotten for more important matters.
"Have you eaten already, Yukiko?" Souji asked, gesturing to his meal invitingly, "We can share if you want."
"Mmm… that smells too good to say no… I'll just have a small bite," Yukiko replied, scooting her seat closer to the gray haired boy until her shoulder pressed up against his.
Souji teasingly held a bite of yakiniku in front of Yukiko's open mouth, pulling it back just as she leaned forward to take a bite. Beside her, Yosuke chuckled aloud, his laughter ringing out in the now empty food court. Yukiko playfully slapped Souji's arm, taking his chopsticks into her own hands with a sly grin. From across the table, Chie watched quietly, noting Yukiko's genuine smile and joy as she and Souji fought over possession of the chopsticks and the slice of meat in between, and smiled to herself as she returned her attention to her steak.
"We should couple up while we're here! It's the natural way of things!"
"Wh-what the hell are you babbling about!?" Kanji shouted.
It was hard to hear through the loud crowd of the festival with all the excited chattering and laughter and the sizzling of foods, but Souji was quite sure he and Kanji had heard Teddie correctly.
"I'm with Teddie!" Rise immediately chimed, and then upon noticing the surprised looks on her female Senpais' faces, she added, "C'mon, Senpai… why wear yukata in the first place? So we have memories we can remember fondly, right? So we should pair off right away!"
Yukiko and Chie glanced at each other briefly before Chie sighed and said, "Alright… Y-you guys decide how we'll split up."
"Huh? Seriously? It's up to us?" Yosuke asked, his voice slightly cracking, "A-alright..." he stuttered, motioning for the others to join him in deep discussion.
Yukiko watched as the four boys huddled together, with a sudden fervor and seriousness she had never seen before. Beside her, Chie tugged at the sleeves of her white yukata impatiently (or was it nervously?) while Rise hummed to herself as she watched a group of excited children run by.
"I wonder what they're planning to do… there's four of them and only three of us," Yukiko commented.
"Ooh, I hope Senpai chooses me!" Rise giggled, "Just for tonight though," she added, winking at Yukiko.
"I'd be okay with Souji or Yosuke, I guess... Kanji doesn't seem like he really wants to be here… and Teddie…" Chie trailed off, unsure how to put into words her desire to avoid being paired with the perverted bear.
Although Yukiko understood that this pairing off idea was simply for fun, she couldn't help but worry that somehow Souji could end up paired with Chie or Rise, and the idea of him enjoying the festivities with another girl was somewhat upsetting. While Chie and Rise were also Souji's friends, she was Souji's girlfriend, so wasn't it logical to be a bit possessive about spending time with him during these kinds of occasions? She could only hope that no one else would object if Souji chose her.
After what seemed like an eternity, Teddie finally walked away from the huddle with a huge grin on his face.
"This can't be good," Chie muttered.
"It's decided! I'm going with all of you!"
"Huh?" Chie asked, "What's going on?"
"Oh, well, there were too many guys, so someone would have been left out… I just couldn't let that happen," Teddie explained.
"Haha, I see," Chie said, sounding somewhat relieved.
"You're so kind, Teddie…" Yukiko complimented, eliciting a twinkle of happiness from his eyes.
"We let them decide and this is what we get?" Rise grumbled, "What a letdown… Oh well… let's go, then."
"That damn bear!" was the first thing out of Yosuke's mouth as soon as the girls were out of earshot.
Kanji still seemed a bit slow to pick up on the current situation, eating his Topsicle as if nothing had happened.
"There goes the only chance that I'll ever have with Risette," Yosuke sulked, giving a small sigh.
"I'm sure there'll be more chances," Souji offered awkwardly, "Let's go have a look around," he suggested, hoping to find something to take Yosuke's mind off of Teddie's treachery.
"Let's get some ikayaki!" Kanji shouted, finishing up the last bit of his Topsicle.
"Could you at least show a little remorse?" Yosuke seethed, "This is kind of your fault, you know!?"
"'Hell are you talking about?"
Souji walked briskly from stall to stall, checking out the various items and souvenirs on display, with Kanji and Yosuke bickering behind him. As he moved about, Souji noticed a distinct lack of people at the festival- as Yosuke had mentioned earlier, it was likely because people were still paranoid about the murders, having absorbed every little detail provided to them by the news. It would likely take weeks for people to return to their daily normal lives.
The trio made a stop at the ikayaki booth, and as Kanji was busy placing his order of multiple plates, Souji heard a familiar voice through the crowd.
"Hey! I found them!"
Turning around, Souji watched as Chie, Rise, and Yukiko emerged through a small crowd gathered around one of the game stalls, all with a somewhat exhausted look on their faces.
"Where's Teddie?" Yosuke asked edgily.
"Oh, well… let's just say he won't be moving for a while," Chie said, her lips pulled slightly upward.
"…That doesn't sound good."
That was quite an understatement by Yosuke. Souji could only imagine what the girls had done to the poor bear, and what he had done to deserve it. On the other hand, knowing Teddie… he probably did deserve it.
"It's not what you think, really," Yukiko quickly replied, with a wave of her hand, "We just told him that the booth selling Topsicles was having a contest, and whoever could eat the most Topsicles in ten minutes would win a date with Kanamin. We all chipped in to buy him some, and after fifteen Topsicles he kind of just fainted."
"Only fifteen!?" Kanji demanded, "If I were there-"
"I still think we should pair off," Rise interrupted, "It'll be a lot more fun than walking around in this huge group," she added, flashing a pearly smile.
"Y-yeah," Chie stammered, "I think we should decide this time."
"Let's go Souji!" Yukiko suddenly blurted, surprising herself with her own forwardness, grabbing Souji by the wrist.
Chie took a brief second to consider between the remaining two boys before motioning for Yosuke to follow her. "C'mon Yosuke! I wanna try the takoyaki!"
"O-okay," Yosuke replied, somewhat surprised, his eyebrows suddenly disappearing under his unruly hair.
"… I guess that leaves me and you Kanji-kun," Rise said sweetly as Chie and Yosuke disappeared through the crowd, gazing into the delinquent's eyes.
"H-huh? Oh…yeah I s'pose," Kanji stuttered, going suddenly red in the face, which drew a giggle from the teen idol, "Uh… anyway, like I was sayin' earlier, I would've eaten twenty Topsicles!"
Souji and Yukiko walked side by side, arms joined together at the hands, fingers interlocked, through the aisle of stalls, stopping from time to time to try a certain dish or play a game.
Yukiko loved feeling the warmth and pulse of Souji's hand under hers- it was always warm, radiating a strong heat. It reminded her of when she was little, when her father would hold her hand as she used the other to play with the freshly fallen snow- it gave her comfort and a feeling of safety that was different than what she felt when she was with Chie.
"You look very pretty in that yukata," Souji said, breaking Yukiko out of her thoughts.
"Oh, thank you," Yukiko replied, her cheeks burning a light pink.
"What's that stain though?" he asked quizzically, pointing at a small dark blemish just above her bosom.
"Ketchup," Yukiko said grimly, turning to the side as she muttered to herself under her breath. "Oh," she started, suddenly noting the strange look on Souji's face, "Teddie was playing around with a ketchup bottle."
"Ah," Souji responded, nodding, "Figures."
"They have corn over here Souji!" Yukiko suddenly exclaimed, pulling Souji toward a stall where a few people were already waiting in line- the loud sizzling of corn being grilled was loud enough to be heard over the chatter of those standing before him. Souji began pulling out his wallet, before he was stopped by Yukiko.
"I'll pay for this," she said, placing a hand over Souji's arm.
"I just got paid by Yosuke," Souji protested, "Let me do this."
"You can treat me next time, then. I have been craving Aiya's lately…" Yukiko replied, grinning at Souji as he sighed and rolled his eyes, reluctantly shoving his wallet back into his pocket.
The two chewed on their cobs, walking slowly past the festivities and toward the small hill that lay behind Tatsuhime Shrine, planting themselves underneath a small tree. Up here, it was relatively quiet- the giddy festival was now a distant mumble, and the sound of teeth gnashing into kernels permeated the air.
"What's wrong, Souji?" Yukiko asked after a moment of silence, eyeing the gray haired boy who had a rather stoic expression on his face.
Souji glanced at her, his eyes intense, before tilting his gaze upwards toward the night sky. "… I only just moved here, so I don't know much about Inaba… but this," he said, gesturing to the lights of the festival glowing below them, "This is what I fight for- the way Inaba was before the murders began, when people could smile and truly enjoy themselves without fear."
Yukiko smiled at him, gently placing her hand over his. "Mitsuo's been caught. It'll take time, but Inaba is slowly returning to its normal self, thanks to all of us."
Souji sighed as he leaned forward, shaking his head. "I've been thinking for a while now, and the more I think about it, the less sense it makes."
"W-What are you talking about, Souji?" Yukiko asked, raising a brow quizzically.
"Mitsuo's not the killer," he said bleakly, now playing with the remains of his cob.
"No." Yukiko stood up, staring downwards, her hands balled into fists.
"No," she repeated, raven hair draping the sides of her face, masking her expression, "We spent four months searching for clues, looking for answers, trying to find the one responsible for all this. We nearly died so many times in the TV World, fighting for the truth, and now…" she broke off, shaking, "… and now all that's been for nothing?"
"Yukiko…" Souji muttered, unable to answer.
"We haven't gotten any closer to the truth, have we?" she asked bitterly, biting her lip, "We're going to have to risk our lives again, going back… back into that other world, just for the sake of some stupid maniac!"
There was a slight pause as a sudden brilliant light filled the air, accompanied by a loud boom, showering the night sky with colorful sparks. Souji stood up, taking in the beauty of the fireworks as the crowd below cheered and whooped.
"…Why can't things just go back to normal?" Yukiko whispered, so faintly that Souji could hardly hear her, "I don't want this anymore… I don't want to fight anymore… If I lose any of you… I…"
Souji approached her from behind, slowly wrapping his arms around her pink obi sash, reaching up with one hand to wipe away a stray tear that formed at the corner of her dark eye. He rested his chin on her shoulder, and together, they stood like that, watching the torrent of colors blasting in the sky.
Further down the hill, Souji could make out Yosuke and Chie in the crowd under the glow of the fireworks, sitting on the grass and chatting idly. To their right, Rise shouted and jumped in joy as each firework went off, Kanji looking slightly uncomfortable as he shifted and squirmed where he sat. Teddie lay beside him, seemingly content, his bear costume at his side. Nanako and Dojima were there too, and Souji could see the light of the fireworks etch a genuine smile onto his uncle's face as his cousin's face lit up with delight in sync with the night sky.
"I'm fighting for them, too," Souji said softly into Yukiko's ear, motioning to the residents of Inaba standing before them, "I'd put my life on the line for all you."
Yukiko mumbled contently, leaning her head back onto Souji's shoulder. "… I guess that's why you're leader, huh?" she sniffed, "You can always manage to be strong for the rest of us."
He smirked at her, thinking of a time just earlier in the week when he too, had thought about the what-ifs of returning to a normal life without the burden of having to bring a supernatural killer to justice while saving his victims from certain death. Yukiko turned her head and smiled back at him, their eyes meeting briefly before her lips found their way onto his own.
A/N: Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since I last updated! I've been so caught up with other things that I haven't been able to find the time to simply sit down and write- this chapter is a culmination of single sentences added day by day over the span of five months. I'll try and get off my lazy butt to write faster for the next chapter.
I hope Yukiko didn't come off as feeling too overdramatic this chapter- I imagined that it must have been quite a shock, thinking they had caught the culprit only to learn that Mitsuo was nothing but a copycat killer, and that despite their best efforts the killer still eluded them.
And Souji, although on the outside he's still the reliable leader that everyone looks up to, he keeps a lot of his concerns and worries to himself, trying not to burden others with his problems.
Reviews and critiques are appreciated!